- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Despite the constant media drumbeat of bad news stories about the situation in Iraq and the broader war on terrorism, there is one significant positive development that deserves more attention. Two years after the deadly attacks by al Qaeda in the United States, this is a nation more alert, aware and attitudinally prepared for terrorist attacks than ever before. Those are important conclusions of the most recent version of the American Survey (conducted Sept. 11-16 among 800 registered voters nationwide, margin of error 3.5 percent). For example, while people believe that the federal government is doing the best it can (seven in 10 agree that the government is doing everything it can to ensure that future attacks are prevented), they also sense that such efforts may not work. More than 90 percent think that another attack is likely, and 77 percent think that it is likely that Washington will be attacked. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said more than once, it is almost impossible to completely stop terrorists from attacking.

Mixed in with this sense of foreboding is very pointed concern about our vulnerability. Almost half (45 percent) of the respondents say that we are very vulnerable to terrorist attacks; another 46 percent say that we are somewhat vulnerable to such attacks. While the intensity varies slightly between and among demographic and ideological groups, the overall sentiment is consistent. This concern over vulnerability goes beyond soft targets. More than nine in 10 indicated that important components of our infrastructure — bridges, buildings, telecommunications systems — are vulnerable to attack.

It is important to note that one of the most surprising results in the survey is the consistency between and among demographic and ideological groups. Typically, we would expect answers to vary by as much as 20 percentage points between certain groupings. We did not find that. This relative harmony suggests to us that the sentiments about the perceived risk, our perceived readiness and appropriate actions to narrow the gap between risk and readiness is unusually robust and sturdy.

In short, people are confident in the likelihood of additional attacks, concerned about our vulnerabilities and anxious for the government to protect itself and them. This suggests a few things. First, despite the problems that the president is having in delivering his messages about the war against Islamic radicals in general and Iraq in particular, it seems likely that when the campaign becomes serious, he will have ample opportunities before extraordinarily attentive audiences to draw distinctions between himself and his opponent on this issue.

Second, while the survey work we have done on this issue over the past year or so is difficult to interpret, we believe that the ability to reduce the threat posed by terrorism and to confront radicals with force and firmness will be a threshold issue in 2004. The public will not let someone become (or continue as) president unless they believe that he is doing everything possible to reduce the risk of another attack and minimize the damage from an attack should it come. This particular intersection of attitudes and expectations could prove challenging for the Democrats to navigate in 2004.

Finally, this unprecedented level of heightened concern means Americans are now partners with the government in fighting the war on terror. This realistic sense of foreboding, maybe not the kind of mindset one would wish for in an ideal world, may actually help reduce the chance of a successful terrorist attack in the future, as citizens watch, listen and interpret the security situation around them in a completely different light than two years ago.

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